Bali Rice Fields

Rice is a very important aspect of Balinese life, dominating not only the country side with its luminous green terraced fields but also the religion and culture of Bali. It is the major crop and also the main diet of the Balinese people.

In the history of pre-mechanized agriculture few societies have ever achieved the high levels of productivity characterized by wet rice farming in Bali. It appears that four factors are central to their success as rice farmers.

These includes:

  1. The fertility of the volcanic soil
  2. A high complex technology and corresponding knowledge which allow s the Balinese to make maximal use of environmental systems and resources
  3. An organizational system (subak) capable of co-coordinating use of man power and resources.
  4. A genetic strains of rice selected over thousands of years for their diseases resistance, productivity and beauty

About The Rice

Rice cultivation has shaped the social landscape- the intricate organization necessary for growing rice is a large factor in the strength of Bali’s community life. Rice cultivation has also changed the environmental landscape – terraced rice fields trip down hillsides like steps for a giant, in shades of gold, brown and green.

There are four words for rice namely;

  1. Padi is the growing rice plant (hence paddy fields)
  2. Gabah is rice after harvesting,
  3. Beras is uncooked grain
  4. Nasi is cooked rice,
    As in Nasi goreng (fried rice) and nasi putih (plain rice). A rice field is called Sawah. The whole rice field has a farmer organization called “Subak”.

The subak as an organization of the farmers Wet rice agriculture, especially as practiced in Bali, is far too complex and requires too much regulation, particularly in coordinating use of irrigation systems, for one farmer to practice alone or even in conjunction with a few others. Consequently, a highly specialized farm of agricultural association has evolved over the centuries in Bali to coordinate the maximal usage of the environment for the growing of the wet rice.

These irrigation cooperative, known as “Subak” are responsible for the allocation of water resources, and maintenance of irrigation networks, for coordinating planting, and for insuring that all religious rituals to insure good harvests are performed.

Subak organizations are usually comprised of all individuals owning land irrigated by a singles dam and major canal. The water from a single subak dam may be divided into dozens and even hundreds of channels to irrigate to terraced sawah. In determining the many issues involved in wet rice cultivation (when to plant, who is responsible for cleaning and guarding canals, regulating water flow , etc.) group votes are taken . Each Subak member has one vote regardless of the size of his holding. Generally, all Subak leaders are elected by group decision.

Thus, for the entire peasant farmer’s expertise in using his environment for wet rice, without the subak to coordinate activities it is unlikely that the Sawah system could ever reached its current level of pervasiveness’ efficiency and productivity.

Subak in Bali does not belong to the Banjar and has its own leader. The people who become the Subak members are not always the same people who become the Banjar members. The Subak members are the owners or the people who work on the rice field that getting the water irrigation from the dams regulated by a Subak organization.

Not all of the Subak members live in the same Banjar. On the other hand, there could be a Banjar member who has many rice fields in different areas and get the water irrigation from the dams organized by several Subaks. Therefore this Banjar member will join himself in all of the Subak where his rice fields are located.

Planting of the Seeds

Bundles of the rice shoots over then brought from adjacent nurseries where the seed has been sprouted. Without the aid of strings or measuring devices each seedling is precisely placed next to its neighbors, neither too close nor too distant.

History of the Traditional Rice Field

Wet rice agriculture (sawah) in the nexus of Balinese low-land economy. This is hardly a new development. Wet rice (huma) is mentioned in the earliest known old Balinese inscription (prasasti) dated 882 A>D. It seem quite likely that the origin of “sawah” cultivation on Bali dates back to the beginning of the first millennium or earlier.

The development of the wet rice agriculture was fostered by the abundance of water and fertile soil, and this fertility of the land has long been evoked as an explanation for bali prodigious fields. Still, even the most fertile fields would have been exhausted after hundreds of years of used had it not been for the Balinese farmer’s ability to prepare and replenish the nutrients of the soil.

Description of wet rice farming preparation of the soil;

Traditional fertilizer relies primarily on ash decaying organic matters, and cow manure. Peasant families have traditionally own one or more cows for fertilizer production. The preparation of the soil is crucial in traditional methods of wet rice agriculture. After each harvest unusable matter in the fields in burnt to provide ash, after which the field are hoed.

They are then flooded; cow manure is spread over the fields, after which they are ploughed several times. The soil is then worked into a fine, smooth mud, being leveled by dragging a heavy wooden bar pulled by a cow or buffalo across the fields.

The Growth Period

The fields are carefully weeded in the first few weeks and throughout the growth of the crop the rice’s water supply is carefully regulated according to the plant’s needs. The plants are also periodically inspected for insects and other pests which, if found, are quickly dealt with. During the first month or so of growth the fields.

As the rice begins to develop heads of grain the farmers construct elaborate systems toward of the birds. Scarecrows, bamboo poles, wind-driven noise makers, flags and streamers are used to this end. As the crop ripens the farmers guards their fields around the clock to protect them from birds during the day and field mice at night.


The crop is harvested with the help of friends, relatives or the harvesting association known as “seka manyi”. During the rice harvest a line of harvesters will work their way across the field cutting insures a minimal amount of loss during harvest. Once all the rice is cut it is gathered into bundles, which are then carried to the farmers’ rice barn where it can be kept in bundles for years without spoilage. The bundles can be removed, threshed and hulled as needed for family consumption, or sold in the market when cash or other goods are required.

The Process of Growing the Rice

The process of the rice growing starts with the bare, dry and harvested fields. The remaining rice stalks are burnt off and the field is then liberally soaked and repeatedly ploughed. Nowadays this may be done with a mechanical, petrol-powered cultivator, but often they will still use two bullocks or cattle pulling a wooden plough. Once the field is reduced to the required muddy consistency, a small corner of the field is walled off and the seedling rice is planted there. The rice is grown to a reasonable size and lifted and replanted, shoot by shoot, in the larger fields have to be kept in a working order and the fields have to be weeded.

Introduction of the new rice technology and its impact

Balinese farmers have, however, been experiencing continuing population growth and thus, since the mid-twentieth century have been having difficulties mating an ever growing demand for rice.

In the early 1970’s the government began to intensify its program to raise agricultural reproduction. This program was based on peasant adoption of a whole system of wet rice agriculture, including new hybrid seeds, fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides, tractors and rice mills. The new rice system offered a number of advantages.

The new strains matured more quickly in 90 to 100 days as apposed to 160 days or more traditional strains and were said to give 50% greater yield than traditional rice.

The government also extended credit to farmers as a generous basis so that they could implement this system. This system was, thus rapidly adopted by many small farmers, especially in south Bali.

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